JJ Hanrahan ready for Jack Carty duel as Munster face Connacht
Outhalves who were part of same Irish underage side are both enjoying purple patches
JJ Hanrahan kicked Munster to an improbable victory over Clermont/ Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
When JJ Hanrahan and Jack Carty catch each other’s eyes at the Sportsground tomorrow before the crunch Conference B meeting between Connacht and Munster, their minds might flash back to their underage days as rival outhalves.
Specifically, they went to the 2012 World Junior (Under-20) Championships as the respective outhalves in the Irish squad. Hanrahan was the team’s star turn, steering them to an opening day win over the hosts South Africa as well as the play-off wins over England and France which secured them fifth place, the Irish Under-20s’ best finish at that point.
The young Castleisland man scored 53 points in four appearances, and as he’s perhaps tired of being reminded, was nominated on a three-man shortlist for the 2012 IRB Junior Player of the Year Award. Carty started the pool win over Italy and made brief cameos in two other games.
“I suppose we don’t really have a rivalry to be honest with you. We haven’t played against each other a whole lot,” said Hanrahan this week and, indeed, with both now aged 28 and nine seasons on, remarkably this will be their first interprovincial derby opposing each other.
Hanrahan scored all Munster’s points when they beat Connacht 22-16 at a snowy Thomond Park in December when Carty replaced Robbie Henshaw in midfield for the last five minutes. That game also marked Frank Murphy’s 100th game for Connacht against his native province, and he will be referee on Saturday evening.
The closest Hanrahan and Carty came to facing each other was in March 2015 at Thomond Park when Munster won 42-20 and Hanrahan came on for the last ten minutes, but by which point Carty had been replaced.
Since then, between the jigs and the reels, Hanrahan’s ensuing two-year sojourn to Northampton, the vagaries of form and selection, they have never opposed each other. But Hanrahan’s respect is clear.
“I think he is a fantastically talented player,” he said of his Connacht counterpart. “I think he has got a great kicking game and he is very good with ball in hand as well. He has that Gaelic football background in him, so he has got different types of kick that you probably see more often. It’s a really low trajectory crossfield kick, for example.
“He finds backfield space as well, which is a big challenge for us this weekend to make sure we cover that and try and take that attacking threat away from them.”
Along the way, Carty has won 10 caps for Ireland and went to last year’s World Cup, whereas for all his innate footballing talent, Hanrahan has yet to fulfil an ambition many would have thought he’d have achieved by now.
While he admits that would encourage him more than frustrate him, Hanrahan added: “I suppose other people winning caps and me not is nothing to do with my own personal belief. You can’t base yourself on anyone else’s journey, you have got to base it on your own journey.
“Yeah,” he added, pausing. “I still hold that belief.”
That fire clearly still burns as fiercely as ever.
The pair also come into this game on notable highs, Hanrahan having kicked nine from nine for a 24-point haul in Munster’s titanic comeback win in Clermont last time out, while Carty inspired Connacht to their second win over Leinster in Dublin since 2002 with a 25-point haul.
“My own mentality going into that game was just attack everything,” Hanrahan reveals of his mindset before the Clermont match. “As a 10 I suppose a lot of the time it’s around your mentality and how you go into the game. When you’re playing in France you know it’s a tough place to win but personally, yeah, just attack everything.”
Recovering from a 28-9 deficit by the 25 minute mark should also give the squad confidence as well as imbuing them with the belief that Munster’s famed ability for Houdini-like escapes remains intact.
“Yeah as a team it was definitely a big moment for us. We went behind by a big-enough score pretty early but we got a bit of belief fairly early in that game when we went down to 14 men and nearly scored a try.
“We had a chat under the posts and we said to each other it was going to be a high-scoring game, just stick with it and we’ll come out the other end of it if we stay in the battle, which we did.
“I think that was a big thing. We showed a lot of character in the group that we stuck to the fight and went for 80 minutes. That just goes to show what this group is capable of doing and we’re probably going to have to call on that many more times this season.”
This comes on the back of the players choosing a new leadership group, a process which Johann van Graan handed over in entirety to the players, and the upskilling in training which Stephen Larkham believes has brought about an improvement in the linking between forwards and backs.
“All I can judge it on is what I see in training and what is being put on the field. So I am obviously seeing a lot more in training probably that what we are putting on the field every week,” said Hanrahan.
“But the emphasis in training is definitely there, particularly around how many times they (the forwards) get to touch the ball during the week, how many times we link with them during the week, the types of training and the types of plays we play, the type of open training we play a lot of multi games in training, where forwards and backs are linking a lot.
“There is a big emphasis on that, it’s not just set piece, it’s also multi phase. We have seen a lot of that in training, but again, you have to be practical as well and sometimes play the conditions that are in front of you.
“Sometimes in the Northern Hemisphere having four or five passes on the gainline doesn’t really benefit you, you know you have got to develop that skill now so hopefully we have it when it comes to a little bit of a better period.”
Both the individual tutoring of Larkham, the finest running and passing outhalf of his generation in the world, and this philosophy ought also to be to Hanrahan’s liking.
“It’s definitely my preference in terms of my style of play. It’s enjoyable, it’s challenging and when you have that kind of growth, it’s challenging to the point where you have to grow, that’s when people feel more excited, you want to come into training, you want to get better, I think that’s really exciting.”
Yet while all of this is all well and good, not least the confidence generated in the Stade Marcel Michelin, Hanrahan speaks from experience when stressing: “We feel as if we’re in a good position but again, rugby, the past doesn’t matter, it really, really doesn’t and as much as it’s great to have that confidence behind you, everything’s about the moment and looking forward as well.”
And this meeting is more than significant enough to look no further.
“Look, we know the format of the season, we know where we need to finish and we are in a good position but that means nothing going into this weekend,” said Hanrhan.
Connacht are pressing hard and everything is about this weekend and this weekend only. We’re not going to think any further down the line, just on this game only and try and take it on its merits.”